“CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship gave me a leadership identity” CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship goes beyond individual recognition, empowers Van Gujjar community

05, Aug 2021 | Mohammed Meer Hamza

The Van Gujjar community’s traditional festival ‘Sela Parv’ had fascinated me since I was a young boy. However, I had not really seen it being celebrated, only heard stories about it from my elders. They in turn heard tales from their elders, how in the bygone era the Van Gujjar would migrate between kingdoms and riyasats or domains, and would plant trees almost like a green footstep as they went along. Remember this was from decades before India gained Independence.

My elders would mention the Saharanpur riyasat often, and how the mid-monsoon festival of greenery or the Sela Parv was really popular then. My elderly uncle, who is in his late 90s, told me how the community would anchor a support stick of the wooden milk churn, the madhani, on a native tree sapling they had planted.

CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program is a unique initiative aiming to give voice and agency to the young, from among the communities with whom we work closely. These presently include migrant workers, Dalits, Adivasis and forest workers. CJP Fellows report on issues closest to their hearts and home, and are making impactful change every day. We hope to expand this to include far reaching ethnicities, diverse genders, Muslim artisans, sanitation workers and manual scavengers. Our raison d’etre is to dot India’s vast landscape with the committed human rights workers who carry in their hearts Constitutional values, to transform India into what our nation’s founders dreamt it to be. Please Donate Now to increase the band of CJP Grassroot Fellows.

Often the Semal trees were planted from grafts of older trees that took root seasons before. This tradition would actually protect the new tree from being disturbed by both, humans and cattle, as the churn was there. The womenfolk also made sure the sapling was watered as all the utensils would be rinsed before the milk was churned. By the time they migrated at the end of the season months later, the sapling would have taken root, and was strong enough to sustain itself. This is how our ancestors created parts of the forest we can still see.

My uncle Mohammed Qasim showed me a massive tree that had been planted by my grandfather. I instantly understood the ethos behind the festival: “plant trees today, nurture them, so you and your children can enjoy its shade years later.”

I, as a member of the Van Gujjar community and as a cultural and environmental conservationist, was mesmerised with this festival and wanted to restart the Sela Parv so the future generations would also carry it forward. So, I just started it in 2019, in my home state Uttarakhand. I began in my own residential area, with the ‘Tribal Yuva Sangathan’ that I lead. Last year we began the festival in the Gaudhri range, and in Ram Nagar in Kumaon along with Van Panchayat Sangharsh Morcha. Then came CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship 2020-2021, and this year more people joined in. This also marked a significant positive change in my life as an activist too.

CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship gave me a leadership identity 

In 2020, I was awarded the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) Grassroots fellowship 2020-2021. Soon, things began to take off, both for me as an activist, and as a representative of my Van Gujjar community. Word spread that I, a young educated member of the community, had been awarded this prestigious fellowship, the first one to get it ever from the state, and with it spread my social network.

For months now, I have traveled across the region documenting the live, and challenges of the forest dwelling Van Gujjars. As a CJP fellow, I have been invited to speak at different forums, and have worked to build a deep trust within the community. Fellow Van Gujjars now reach out to me and share both their concerns and joys. Crucially, I have also gained confidence and now conduct informed interactions with officers of the local administration and the forest department. My community members tell me that I am a “bridge” that has connected them with the authorities.

The impact of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program is also seen on the ground, as I organise more activities that educate both the community about their legal, social rights, as well as those outside the community of the Van Gujjar’s ancient culture, and their social and economic contribution to society. More and more organisations, and individuals have over the past few months, have been reading, and sharing my reports on my community that are published on Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) Grassroots fellowship page. Some have even begun to call me a writer or a reporter. Personally, I want to also share the rare stories.

Keeping traditions alive

For the Sela Parv, we make a rich kheer as we are cattle rearing people known for our high-quality milk products. We keep jaggery under a Banyan tree, which the community considers auspicious, and the women and elders sing the ‘bainth’ which are ancients songs passed down as an oral tradition through generations. My wife sings those songs too, and as I was recording, photographing and writing about other community affairs, I recorded those songs too.

Some images from the Sela Parv celebrations organised this year may be viewed here:

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For me the CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship has powered my activism, it has also helped me gain confidence, and an identity when I go to talk to officials, or invite them to our programmes. Thanks to the fellowship I am able to organise the things needed for events, such as mics and posters. I want to eventually record all these events, especially the environmental aspects into a book one day.

As a CJP Fellow, as well as the president of the Van Gujjar Yuva Sangathan, I want to make sure the events such as Sela Parv are celebrated every year. The community depends on forests and cattle for our livelihood, and our resolve to plant more trees helps everyone.

The community also saw a massive CJP impact, when recently, it was the High Court that came to their rescue and provided relief to many migrant labourers who said they had been harassed by the divisional forest rights officers. As a CJP fellow, I met activist Arjun Kasana who then filed a public interest litigation with the Nainital High Court seeking that the community be helped.

The forest dwelling communities across the country have faced exacerbated harassment and oppression at the hands of forest department officials during the Covid induced lockdown. At the events that I organise I invite forest department officials, and the community leaders also interact with them. They too have begun to recognise me as a CJP Fellow, and provide official responses to queries raised. There is growing mutual respect with many such officers. I hope that continues, and one day my work, research and activism empowered by CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, inspires others too.

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by Mohamed Meer Hamza who hails from the pastoral Van Gujjar hill tribe. He is working on another deep dive into documenting how the forest dwelling Van Gujjar community’s culture and identity has been tampered with in the wake of this rehabilitation.

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Meer Hamza


Mohammed Meer Hamza (26) was born in a jungle. Literally! He hails from Uttarakhand and was born on the outskirts of the Rajaji National Park. Hamza is now pursuing a master’s degree in social work. For over three years now, Hamza has been working actively as a social worker for the Van Gujjar community, helping them access education, retain their culture and know their rights. He has created a youth group and is educating them about the rights of forest dwelling communities, citizenship laws, conservation and security issues. He is also researching traditional forest produce and how to enable his community to market it effectively while retaining the balance of nature. Hamza has begun his research and documentation work. He writes to share his life, and work as a Van Gujjar youth leader.


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